It seems like the rates of autism diagnoses have skyrocketed, and a lot of dog owners are concerned it’s a disorder that can be found in a variety of species. In-depth research has not proven whether or not dogs get autism, but there is a general consensus among veterinary and behavioral professionals based on what’s known about dogs and autism in humans.
Do Dogs Get Autism?
The little bit of research that’s been performed has indicated that dogs do not get autism. If you do an internet search, you’ll find a few sources that claim canine autism is legitimate, but these supposed “signs of autism” in dogs can easily be attributed to other disorders or illnesses.
What do some people think are signs of a dog having autism?
- Avoidance and withdrawal
- Poor interactions with other dogs and humans
- Dislike of anything new (people, things, foods, experiences, etc)
Let’s break down the more likely reasons why a dog could be exhibiting these behaviors.
Avoidance and Withdrawal
Let’s get scientific with this one. Avoidance and withdrawal are better known among professionals as a maladaptive stress disorder. If a dog seems skittish when a stranger greets them or they’re easily startled by loud noises, they’re having healthy reactions. It remains “healthy” as long as it’s a short-term reaction. Once the noise passes and there are ensuing moments of silence, for example, your dog will calm down and resume their normal behavior. If they remain spooked for a significant period of time afterwards, however, this is when it’s considered less normal and more maladaptive (meaning they’re adapting poorly).
Dogs with a maladaptive stress response are typically diagnosed with fear-based disorders like separation anxiety, noise phobias, and even fear aggression. While their reactions can be dangerous to themselves and others, it also takes a toll on them physically. Living with chronic stress isn’t healthy for any species.
Where do these supposed “autism” signs come into play in regards to avoidance and withdrawal? It’s said avoidance is a classic sign of autism, but there’s a more likely explanation. Avoidance is a normal reaction for any species that has a fear-based disorder. Some trainers and veterinarians even recommend helping your dog avoid triggering situations to reduce stress and keep everyone involved safe.
A dog with fear aggression is best left to withdrawal from a stressful situation, and they’re doing what their bodies are programmed to do (avoid stressful situations). It’s very rare a fearful dog will become aggressive with someone unless they’re pushed into situations that make them nervous. If your dog prefers withdrawing from a trigger, let them! Forcing them to be pet by a stranger could have some serious repercussions.
Lacking Poor Socialization/Communication Skills
A dog who doesn’t interact well with other dogs or people isn’t typically the fault of any disorder; it’s a product of poor socialization as a puppy. The great majority of dogs enjoy socializing with their counterparts because they still retain the “pack instincts” inherited from their wild predecessors. The best time to socialize a puppy is from the time they’re three weeks old until they’re about three months old. This means it’s incredibly important newborn puppies stay with their mothers for the full eight weeks. Taking them away from their mother and siblings is going to interrupt that period of necessary bonding and socializing. When you get your puppy from their mother, it’s important to expose them to other dogs (that are fully vaccinated) and people to continue socializing them.
Intense Dislike of New Situations
This usually stems from a lack of socialization, prior trauma, or anxiety. It almost never has anything to do with autism. Most shy dogs are that way because they weren’t given enough exposure to new places, people, or situations as a puppy when they were more curious than fearful. Other dogs are nervous because they were abused or experienced a trauma associated with a particular place or circumstance. Sometimes you can reverse this apprehension with lots of controlled exposure to whatever worries them, but sometimes it’s so ingrained in certain dogs that you just have to ensure they’re well-trained in case you come across something that elicits their fear.
Dogs certainly experience things like obsessive-compulsive disorders and anxiety, but there is no evidence that they can have autism. If your dog is having concerning behavioral issues, it’s best to start with an examination and discussion with your vet so you can get to the root of the problem.